a friend commented yetserday about how he thought–“and don’t think i’m being sexist here”, he said–that a most manly smell was that of the old spice cologne. he described it as being ‘just right’ manly, neither too showy nor too weak, it seemed to him SMELL just the ideal manly qualities. I’ve heard of synaesthesia: you can smell moonlight in poetry, but here we are: somehow smelling social values, characteristics of personality.

Just the right kind of man: strong but not showy, neither understated. and yes, i confess, somwhere, even i tend to think so when i sniff oldspice. but i know that it has a deeper association in my own life that might prompt this reading. Dad.

old spice original: the bottle's a pleasure to look at, touch feel and smell

I’ve grown up seeing my father use that beautiful white bottle every day. And when i hugged him, there was always that dadsmell: his sweat with oldspice. And interestingly, dad has always seemed to value (and act upon) the model of the ‘just right’ man my friend was talking about. Was it then this association with dad that made it easy for me to accept my friend’s opinion: that real, balanced manly smells of oldspice?

Or, was my dad using oldspice in the first place because he thought so? was my dad’s association of the smell with the value:
1- a gut feeling?
2- a socialised association with the smell (did he see someone he admired as a man–maybe his dad–use it?)?
3- a socialised association appearing as a gut feeling (like my friend who ‘felt’ it was so) ?

How do we associate smells with certain qualities? is it mere conditioning? or do we have some kind of evolutionary, pheromonal instinct?


University of Hyderbad, three nights ago. Odissi performance by young Sashwath Joshi holds audience spellbound. Audience whistles in appreciation. Shashwath responds with a smile and two thumbs up. More whistles (and clapping of course), and Shashwath thanks the audience for their enthusiasm.

Shashwath Joshi onstage at the University of Hyderabad

Shashwath Joshi onstage at the University of Hyderabad

Saturday night, Kathak performance by Susmita Bannerjee. Much clapping between performance pieces. Audience whistles in appreciation. Susmita indignantly ‘reminds’  audience that in “our Indian culture” we appreciate performances with “respectful, folded hands”, not by whistling. She goes on to ask the audience–mostly young indian students, not to forget their “roots”.

What is this with these thoughtless puritanical assertions of “indian culture”? who and what have constituted The Culture of India when there has been no such thing?  There have been, and continue to be cultures of myriad norms, values (and ways of lauding) in and around this peninsula over thousands of years. Performances by and for working-class and lower-caste audiences (but not restricted to them)  are best appreciated by loud howls and whistles.  Are they any less Indian than Susmita?

Indian Culture in Susmita’s terms seem to suggest an equation with certain select forms of dance (such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, etc.) and music (Sitar playing) whose conventional modes of appreciation seem to be the quiet gestures of the hand or ‘polite’ clapping. (It would be an interesting exercise to locate the sociological coordinates of the range of programmes espoused by her host, the Society for the Promotion of Indian Culture and Music Amongst Youth–SPIC MACAY). Shashwath Joshi (under the same auspices) is an interesting contrast worth appreciating for his easy spirit. For isn’t the audience’s appreciation (rather than its mode) that which really matters to an artiste?

A bumper sticker for our insecure, Indian Culture Dogmatists : Indigenousness is tentative. Assert with care!

[whistle!]


yesterday, sunday, with a friend at the golconda fort, hyderabad. little has been preserved of the old deccan kingdom. we remembered william dalrymple shedding a tear for this loss. we wondered why no one had preserved it.

i wonder why we wish to preserve things. why did i or my friend wish it had been preserved better? what of it did we want preserved? (what does it mean to ‘preserve…the old d

Golconda Fort, Hyderabad

Golconda Fort, Hyderabad

eccan kingdom?’) will  preserving its architecture do? or mummifying its kings? would we be exactly happy if the deccani kingdom existed, complete with its kings and subjects and laws and language? or do we wish preserved only that which wouldn’t hurt us or threaten us? is quaintness a quality of the harmless?

”preservation” is talked about in the context of something that is lost for the most part, or is in the process  of being so. it is  talked about in the context of pickles and jams. in this attempt to arrest the wearing away of something, what we have preserved: the object, is perhaps no longer the object at all. but something different. pickled fish and mummified kings aren’t anymore fish or kings.

what makes a photograph of a king make for a more authentic ‘stand-in’ rather than, say a lock of the king’s hair? isn’t it because, his photograph gives us a unique idea of him (his face, most importantly), establishes a whole set of similarities and differences for us to imagine him; whereas a lock of  hair, owing to its sameness with any other lock of hair–for the naked eyes–gives us little or nothing to identi-fy the king with.

thus perhaps we preserve, or wish to preserve, mostly that which remains of the past, that help us identi-fy, establish uniquenesses of, establish differences and similarities, and thus…what? KNOW that past? do we derive pleasure form knowing?

PS: of course, a better maintained fort and more of the pottery of that age would’ve helped us imagine the existence of the kingdom, quaint, exciting, harmless,as it lived. it wouldn’t be a great approach to the fish, however.